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Hearing the call of the wild during the lockdown

Illustration by Alexia Lozano

I live a regular life, up at 6 a.m., to bed at 11 p.m., the hours in between counted out like place markers. Yes, that’s me walking the dog on a mile-long loop at 6:15 prior to breakfast, a perusal of the newspaper, and my standard commute to work, which involves mounting the stairs to my office.

Regularity. No surprises. This is what has allowed me to be so productive (I’ve just delivered my 29th book of fiction and am now putting the finishing touches on the 30th).

But something was different out there much of this year—the bars and restaurants were closed, the traffic became a whisper, the streets of my village were deserted. I was so bored my tonsils started to grow back in.

Still, I was among the lucky ones during the COVID-19 lockdown.

I had access to the beach and the mountain trails, and I have a wooded piece of property near Santa Barbara alive with wildlife to entertain me. There is the pregnant bullfrog in the pond rumbling in the early morning and at cocktail hour, the owl nesting in the woods behind the house, the skitter of lizards and the hover of dragonflies, not to mention the hummingbirds buzzing. The raccoons and opossums appear at dusk; squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and gophers make merry during the daylight hours and the rats—the ubiquitous rats—at night.

What I enjoyed was the absence of mechanical noise so that the presence of the animals shone through. I stood in the yard at night, listening, breathing, smelling, and feeling the shiver of life. Mirabile dictu—there were stars in the sky!

All to the good. Especially since my son, who had just become an M.D. and was awaiting his internship at a Los Angeles hospital, had been at home during the lockdown, as was my daughter, her husband, and their 9-month-old son. So we were hunkered down together, and the young people did the grocery shopping in order to protect my wife and me from exposure to the virus (I am in the high-risk group not so much because of my age but because I am a pessimist).

To combat the boredom, I occasionally drove over the coastal range and into the Santa Ynez Valley to hike the trails of the Los Padres National Forest.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service had restricted access to my favorite areas, so one day the dog and I sought out an unfamiliar trail. Of course, the ticks were happy to welcome us, as were the biting gnats. The rattlesnake wasn’t as felicitous. It was a coil of shadow, 2 feet from the trail, and it was not happy with our presence.

Fortunately, it did not strike—it could easily have killed the dog—but when I lingered at an appropriate social distance of 10 feet just to marvel in its muscular presence, it became even more irritated and shot off into the chaparral like an arrow of flesh. That made me feel, oh, I don’t know, a bit less than welcome.  

Meekly, I slunk back home to the lockdown, the wine, the lizards and the hummingbirds, and the cool, rattlesnakeless shade of the trees of my own yard. And the boredom, that too.

T.C. Boyle is the author of many novels, including The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and Outside Looking In.

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